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My take on the GCSE results

This post first appeared on the Epic blog on 1st October 2012.

In the run-up to the GCSE results, I found myself gritting my teeth in anticipation of the traditional cries of ‘the exams are so easy these days’ and ‘bring back O levels’.

This has always annoyed me mildly, but this year it was personal. My son had not long finished the first of his two GCSE years and took a number of exams in the summer. I know how hard he worked for these and I know what the exams involved, as I revised with him. (Well, if you can’t put your adult learning experience to use supporting your teenager through his exams, what kind of a parent would you be?!)

So based on that experience, I claim that GCSEs are not simpler than O levels; they are different. And I speak as one with a fistful of A grade O levels.

For every simple knowledge question my son had to answer, I could give you an example of a question that asked him to evaluate a piece of information for its credibility, consider its merit from differing perspectives and reach his own conclusion. That is a far more useful skill than memorising the reproductive cycle of a rabbit, which was a question I answered many years ago and have never used since!

As a learning designer, I spend a great deal of my working life finding ways to turn dry text into engaging learning that people can actually apply and use in their working lives. Returning to a system of two years of intense information memorisation for a few hours of written recall goes against everything I know about adult learning.

Whether theoretical or empirical, research finds adult learning design is most effective when the learner is actively engaged in their own learning and can see a purpose to it. Gagné’s found that two of the key ways to make learning more effective was to tell learners what they will gain and to get them to demonstrate their understanding. Knowles found a key tenet of learning was that it must be task-orientated rather than memorisation. And in 20+years of adult learning (plus 15 years of motherhood) I have found that people learn because they see a benefit, not simply because I tell them they should!

The world has changed since GCSEs replaced O levels in 1988. A little thing called the web changed the way we access information. If I want to know the reproductive cycle of a rabbit, I can do so in moments. But my O level studies never prepared me to evaluate the quality and veracity of my findings. My son’s studies did. And they are skills that can be transferred and applied in a number of environments.

Using Powerpoint, he can create and deliver a well structured and engaging presentation. He can select the best method and tools for a task and explain why it is the most effective. He can evaluate information and select key facts to present an argument. These are all skills I have developed, but I certainly hadn’t mastered them at 15!

So before you decide that GCSEs “are not fit for purpose”, perhaps you might consider the value of these skills.